It’s embarrassing that we even have to discuss this matter ten years after already debunking it, but some conspiracy theories just won’t go away. I’m talking about the idea that My Neighbor Totoro is actually based on a grisly murder known as the Sayama Incident in 1963 Japan, and that the friendly Totoro is actually a gruesome “God of Death” who functions like a fuzzy Grim Reaper who carries children to their graves.
The whole idea is patently rediculous and is based on mis-translations and over-reading minor details in the movie (such as the disappearance of shadows under Satsuki and Mei near the end). The gossip grew so loud that Studio Ghibli was forced to issue a public statement denying the conspiracy theory. No doubt this resulted in Hayao Miyazaki hitting his head against his desk, grumbling loudly at the gullibility of people. What sort of monster do you think he is, anyway, imagining that he smuggles horrible themes into his family pictures? What sort of sadist would do such a thing?
Why do such conspiracies persist? Many people today seem to look at movies as secret jigsaw puzzles, where hidden messages and themes are revealed only to those who piece together the arcane clues. Consider the endless speculation over Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining as one key example. Depending on who’s telling the tale, that movie is either about the Apollo 11 moon landing, the Holocaust, the Native American genocide, the Federal Reserve, the Illuminati, or any combination of the above. It’s never enough to enjoy a movie on its own terms. Everything has to be a plot.
There is also this tendency to ruin anything that is innocent and pure. It’s very fashionable to tear down one’s childhood heroes, to make everything sinister and twisted and dark. It’s sometimes funny for a cheap laugh, and goodness knows Family Guy has made a thousand gags mining that vein. For an immature “Peter Pan” generation, tearing down one’s childhood idols can stand as a badge of maturity. “Look at how hip and clever I am,” says the unemployed 30-year-old who still lives with his parents.
Much of this also stems from a greater ignorance of film history and theory. Many people don’t know how to read a movie, or translate its visual language. They may have never seen any movies made before they were born, or almost certainly anything made before Star Wars. They know little of silent film, or Film Noir, Italian Neorealism, French New Wave, or any major periods. They search for patters that do not exist, find messages in continuity errors, and imagine vast plots out of misunderstood visual cues or lines of dialog. Movies are not jigsaw puzzles.
When I was a child, I was told that “Hotel California” was a song about how The Eagles became members of the Church of Satan, and that the hotel in question was a haunted house. None of this was even remotely true, but why let facts get in the way of things?
So, kids, let’s take this from the top once again. Totoro is not a “God of Death.” Spirited Away isn’t about child prostitution. Toy Story 3 is not about the Holocaust. The Smurfs are not Nazis, Communists or Satanists. The Care Bears are not gay voodoo devil worshippers. Garfield is not hallucinating. Charlie Brown is not dying from cancer. Kubrick didn’t fake the moon landing. There are no backwards-masked Satanic messages. Vaccines don’t cause autism. Global Warming is real. The Earth is round.
It’s like the 1980s never ended. I need an Advil.
Here’s a recent YouTube video I found that discusses the Totoro “God of Death” conspiracy theory. It pretty much recites from the script, so if you haven’t heard about this before, well, enjoy.